“What hope do you have for the future?” I asked. Fifty-three year-old Khaista Khan of Badalai near Madyan in Swat, who had conducted himself with remarkable fortitude until then, broke down. Holding his face in his hands with great courage he fought back the tears. “I don’t even know what hope means anymore,” he said finally.
Khaista owned a hundred walnut, apricot, and apple trees. Besides, there were a few thousand square meters of arable land where he and his brother grew their wheat, maize, and vegetables. His holding as well as the village sat a hundred meters from the right bank of the Bishigram Khwar (Stream).
The fruit orchard fetched the brothers on average fifty thousand rupees (US$588) a year, while the rest of the land provided about enough food from one crop to the next. Coupled with his salary from the job in Quetta, Khaista had no quarrel with fate. That is until July 2010.
That was when one day the heavens opened up. “For four days it rained so hard; we thought the second Deluge was upon us,” he says. The stream rose, eventually bursting its banks and quickly racing through the houses and orchards that were once picturesquely poised by its bank. As if they were matchsticks, the water carried away tall, spreading trees that had held their ground for more time than Khaista remembers. With them went the hundred that Khaista owned.
While the family’s closest neighbors lost not just their trees and farms, but their entire homes, Khaista thought his self fortunate for at the end of the deluge he had lost only one room of the joint family home. Although his village was not affected by the 2005 earthquake, he compares, “After the earthquake, people had debris to show for their lost homes. In our village, the houses by the river were completely obliterated by the flood. Not even a brick remained where houses once stood.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a rock-strewn stream bed could once have been the site of orchards and homes.
Now, weeks after the disaster, he is home on long leave from his job in Quetta. Unlike some of his less fortunate brothers, Khaista had some money that the family had saved to meet other commitments including his son’s wedding. This now came in handy and in late-August, Khaista was busily rebuilding the lost portion of his house. He was fortunate because there are others who have to wait for government handouts for reconstruction. It was anybody’s guess, he said wryly, when, if ever, this aid would eventually be available.
His family’s situation could have been worse, he notes. Had it not been for the generous food aid from Church World Service – Pakistan/Afghanistan, his savings would have ended up paying for food for the next few months. In that case, he, too, would have had to wait for aid to rebuild his damaged home.
The hopelessness stems from the state of his arable land, however. The topsoil is washed away and has been replaced with rocks brought down by the river. Just the cost of mechanized leveling of the land and removal of the debris is beyond the means of Khaista’s family. Then, there will be the need to provide soil and build irrigation ditches and protective walls before the land can be prepared for sowing. What of the decades old lost fruit trees? How can they ever be replaced in a single lifetime?
He does not know where to begin. Soon winter will be upon them, and it was, perhaps, instinctive self-preservation that made Khaista apply himself to rebuilding the home. To keep the family from the freezing cold of the mountain village was the foremost priority. The rest is entrusted to Providence.
He produces some photographs of his son dated December 2009. The young man is sitting on a stone wall or standing by an irrigation ditch in a wintry landscape of scrawny fruit trees. The ground below has stubble left from the maize harvest. “That was what we once had,” Khaista Khan sighs. He does not know if he will ever regain his lost paradise.